Hometown Report

Hometown Report: Cats open at home on a night for the ages

They couldn’t find their husbands, and that realization left the ladies to look at each other, then the heavens. Then they laughed.

The husbands were in pursuit. Jim Dickinson was chasing down foul balls during the River Cats’ batting practice early Friday evening, bounding over green seats with abandon to fetch the goods. Craig Gilbert was on the opposite edge of Raley Field, bearing a program and pen, seeking player autographs. The husbands are in their 60s, with a lot of kid left in them. This scene captured a slice of atmosphere in a slice of baseball Americana that permeated Sacramento’s 15th home opener as the River Cats beat the Salt Lake Bees 7-6 Friday in front of an announced crowd of 12,142.

It’s more than baseball here. It’s a carnival, festive and fun. Raley Field is a sensory overload with sites, sounds, smells and tastes. No one goes hungry. No one goes home bored, either. The Triple-A feeder to the A’s served as a backdrop to the atmosphere that included a mascot zipping around the infield in a bumper car, food lines that snaked throughout the concourse and a postgame fireworks show, a staple on Fridays at home.

Gilbert, a chemist, is healing from heart surgery. He was just cleared to swing a golf club, and his physician encouraged him to continue to attend River Cats games. Something about baseball doing wonders for the mind, body and soul. The Gilberts have attended River Cats games since the franchise set up shop here in 2000.

“It’s always special,” said Gilbert’s wife, Ann, decked in River Cats garb head to toe. “It’s affordable, it’s friendly, and there’s a lot of talent on the field. Can’t beat it.”

How loyal are the Gilberts? They had their three grandchildren at the house earlier in the day, then ushered them off.

“We had a ballgame to catch,” Ann Gilbert said.

Jim Dickinson, the foul-ball chaser, and wife Debralee have been River Cats season-ticket holders since the start. Dickinson has an A’s tattoo on his calf and a personalized jersey. Debralee wears River Cats socks, a River Cats hat and a River Cats tank top. And she boasts of one more River Cats perk.

“It’s Dinger,” she said of Sacramento’s sizable, silly mascot. “That’s my boyfriend. He’s come to our house for special events and even came to see me for Valentine’s Day at a restaurant. How many husbands allow a boyfriend like that on the side? Good living.”

Jerry Manuel, a household baseball name in town for more than 40 years, threw out the first pitch. A first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1972 who went on to earn Manager of the Year honors with the same franchise, the ever-fit Manuel said Sacramento remains a hearty “baseball town.” The River Cats are a byproduct of that passion and loyalty.

“It’s always good to be here, always fun,” said Manuel, who runs a local baseball academy and who this week agreed to take on an increased role with Major League Baseball’s on-field diversity task force.

On the topic of fun, longtime Yankees scout Greg Orr promised to aim his radar gun Manuel’s way for that first pitch and vowed not to laugh. A Sacramento native, Orr has studied prospects at ballparks across the country, the last 30 years for New York.

“There’s not a bad seat in the house here, and fans love that,” Orr said. “Scouts, we compare ballparks. We’ve seen them all, and Sacramento is always big in the conversation. Fans think I’m here to take their favorite players, and they’ll tell me, ‘Don’t! Please don’t!’ ”

The River Cats have drawn just over 10 million fans. Sacramento has led the minor leagues in attendance in its 14 seasons, averaging 10,083.

The product has played the part, too, with 11 Pacific Coast League South Division titles since 2000. The A’s led the majors in Triple-A transactions last season, including Sonny Gray. He went from intriguing prospect at this time a year ago at Raley Field to starting Game 5 for the A’s in the American League Division Series last fall to Opening Day starter last week.

All this from a dream created by Art Savage, the founding father of the River Cats and beloved late owner.

“Art lives on because of the legacy he created here, and that includes memories for all these fans,” said Dan Vistica, the River Cats’ executive vice president and chief financial officer and a decades-long friend of Savage. “People come in expecting a good time, and they leave having had a great time. I remember when we first broke ground here. People asked, ‘How are you going to make this all work?’ Well, we’ll eat this elephant one bite at a time. And it’s been a great meal.”